Hurricane Mitch: Foreign Assistance and Building a New Honduras for the 21st Century

November 17, 1998
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzHonduras has been devastated by Hurricane Mitch, the costliest hurricane in Central America this century, in terms of loss of life. In this instance, the word "devastated" is not strong enough. There were an estimated 17,000 deaths (known dead plus missing), and about one-third of its total population has been negatively affected. Ninety percent of its roads suffered some degree of destruction. Banana plantations, the mainstay of the Honduran economy and source of its key export crop, have been destroyed (at first by the winds and floods and, later, by standing water in the fields). In the aftermath of the hurricane, adverse health effects are expected to increase, such as cholera, dysentery, and dengue fever. As one of the poorest nations in Latin America, Honduras could ill afford such devastation. However, Honduras was not alone: similar adverse impacts occurred in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, with substantial but lower loss of life and property in those countries.

In fact, Honduras was brought down by a tropical storm that a few days earlier had been classified as a Category 5 hurricane. Honduras is in an emergency relief assistance phase and will then move into a reparation and reconstruction phase. If Honduras were an ailing man, he would have to be put under intensive care.

As usually happens in such situations, international humanitarian aid donors will provide emergency and reconstruction assistance. Emergency aid will enter the country for a relatively short period of time. This will be followed by assistance to rebuild the damaged infrastructure. In this instance, because of the high level of destruction, the debts owed by Honduras and Nicaragua to foreign countries and to such organizations as the World Bank may be forgiven. Clearly, there is no way these countries would be able to repay their debt using their own resources (many of which have been destroyed), let alone produce the funds that will be needed to rebuild their countries. However, the emergency aid will likely be stopgap in nature, that is, considerably less aid than would be necessary to restore the countries and their citizens to their previous level of development (standard of living).

History of Hurricane Mitch
Courtesy of

Reconstruction activities will take a long time to carry out. What is likely to take place is that the worst-hit country (in this case Honduras) will be restored (maybe) to the level of development it had reached before the impacts of Hurricane Mitch. In other words, Honduras will likely (eventually) return to its previous levels of economic development and public health ... and also to the levels of poverty, dependence on the export of a few agricultural products, etc., that existed just before the blitz of Hurricane Mitch.

Can we avoid this dismal scenario — that of returning a poor country only to its previous level of poverty? I would argue that this could be a unique point in Honduran history and in the history of foreign humanitarian assistance. With the Honduran infrastructure and economy in shambles, some radical thinking is warranted. (And one such radical approach is for Honduras to design the society it would like to have and for the international community to combine forces to help Honduras to achieve it.)

The international community should seize the opportunity to build Honduras anew and not just return it to its previous status as a relatively poor, developing country with little chance for improvement. By taking a radical departure from traditional approaches to post-disaster reconstruction, the international community and the Honduran government can help to develop a society that is no longer dependent on the primary sector (agricultural production), but can seek to move its economy toward the secondary (manufacturing) or tertiary (services) sectors.

What I have in mind is to convert a situation of chronic despair into one of hope. The situation in Honduras has some parallels to the way that the Brazilian government decided in the 1950s to build a new capital city (Brasilia) in the interior of the country on virgin land, choosing not to remodel or raze an already existing but run-down city.

The industrialized countries should combine their humanitarian and foreign assistance efforts to help Honduras begin the next millennium on a self-sustaining development path. For the "rich" countries (the "haves") to be willing and able to rebuild a "have-not" country (almost from scratch) would provide hope to many other developing countries, which have been unable to close the economic development gap with industrialized nations.

For decades, economists in the industrialized countries have sought to apply their different, often competing, economic development theories to little avail for the recipients of their financial assistance (trade and aid). Here's a chance for the rich countries and their development specialists to work together to put their proverbial "assistance money where their mouth is."

Fragilecologies Home Page | Full List of Articles